The outrageously talented T.C. Boyle loves nothing more than demolishing a charlatan, and his fabulously entertaining fiction is packed with megalomaniacs, hypocrites, and overbearing nincompoops who make life hell for the intelligent and sensible mensch. When Boyle finds the delicate balance between his over-the-top satirical impulses and his startling sentimentality, no American novelist can touch him. His finest books — Budding Prospects, Drop City — are gorgeous, scorching, soulful, and funny all at once.
At first, identity theft would appear to be an ideal subject for the amped-up Boyle treatment. A scumbag dedicated to mindless consumption on someone else’s dime destroys the good name and credit of a law-abiding citizen. In Talk Talk, it’s Dana Halter, an attractive, deaf 33-year-old English teacher who is thrown in jail after a police officer runs her driver’s license during a routine traffic violation. Apparently, she is wanted in two states on charges ranging from auto theft to assault with a deadly weapon.
The early chapters are a Kafkaesque horror story of bewildering accusations, sullen cops, and loony cellmates. Dana’s boyfriend, Bridger, can’t bail her out, and when the misunderstanding is at last cleared up and Dana is sprung, the authorities declare their part in the nightmare finished. Tracking down identity thieves doesn’t ”merit the resources.” And so, as in many a great crime novel, victim turns vigilante, and Dana begins the monomaniacal pursuit of her shadowy double.
Boyle relishes his sleazy creations, and the other Dana Halter — formerly Peck Wilson of Westchester County, New York — is a beaut. He’s been living it up in California’s Marin County with a glitzy car, luxury condo, and the latest arriviste accessory, the gold-digging Russian girlfriend. Peck is appalled when Dana and Bridger turn up on his doorstep, righteously threatening his cushy life. He takes off for Westchester, initiating a cross-country game of cat and mouse in which it is seldom clear who is cat. The novel flies along on the power of Boyle’s propulsive and exquisitely perceptive prose.
But where is it taking us? The characters here inhabit two completely separate realities, much like the downtrodden illegals and smug yuppies of Boyle’s 1995 weeper, The Tortilla Curtain. But in that blistering early novel, Boyle bridged the divide with his daring apocalyptic ending. In Talk Talk, when worlds at last collide, the smashup barely registers. Because for all their professed mutual antipathy, the Danas have no relationship, whether as people or as ideas, a narrative glitch that Boyle seems to realize only as he peels into his weirdly abrupt letdown of a finale.